A couple of weeks ago, I had a spirited discussion on technology with my best friend. After watching me seemingly consumed with texting my high school/college-aged kids while socializing one evening, he couldn't resist poking fun at my plight. A psychologist by training, he cited studies of the untoward effects of technology multi-tasking and the pernicious impact of instant messaging on the quality of communication. He also jokingly diagnosed me with attention deficit. I defended my behavior, noting that texting and IM are by far the easiest ways to stay in touch with teens and young adults. The kids almost never respond in a meaningful time frame to a phone call, and you'd think that email went out of fashion with desktop computers. I countered by calling my friend a curmudgeonly technophobe. Humbug!

It turns out that debates on the merits of technology are more common than one might think. A recent pairing of columns in the Wall Street Journal brings both the pro and con arguments on the internet to light. Author Clay Shirky promotes the benefits of the internet, while Nicholas Carr cites compelling evidence of its deleterious impact.

Carr's negative case against the internet is derived primarily from the results of psychological studies. “People who read text studded with links, the studies show, comprehend less than those who read traditional linear text. People who watch busy multimedia presentations remember less than those who take in information in a more sedate and focused manner. People who are continually distracted by emails, alerts and other messages understand less than those who are able to concentrate.”

One experiment conducted at Cornell University showed that the half class of students allowed to use Internet-connected laptops during a lecture performed much worse on a subsequent test of content retention than the remaining half who were forbidden from using computers. The common thread to all the malaise: the division of attention across many competing tasks. “What we seem to be sacrificing in all our surfing and searching is our capacity to engage in the quieter, attentive modes of thought that underpin contemplation, reflection and introspection. The Web never encourages us to slow down. It keeps us in a state of perpetual mental locomotion.”

In contrast, Shirky uses history as a guide, arguing that an early negative view of innovations like the internet is not without precedent, and indeed is more rule than exception. His take is that usage of the internet is in its infancy, where mediocre content prevails. “The bulk of publicly available media is now created by people who understand little of the professional standards and practices for media. Instead, these amateurs produce endless streams of mediocrity, eroding cultural norms about quality and acceptability, and leading to increasingly alarmed predictions of incipient chaos and intellectual collapse.”

Shirky likens the evolution of the internet to that of the print world after the invention of movable type, where the early bad dwarfed the good. “...we got erotic novels 100 years before we got scientific journals, and complaints about distraction have been rampant; no less a beneficiary of the printing press than Martin Luther complained, 'The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure of limit to this fever for writing.'"

Shirky pooh-poohs the internet naysayers. “The case for digitally-driven stupidity assumes we'll fail to integrate digital freedoms into society as well as we integrated literacy. What the 16th-century foes of print didn't imagine—couldn't imagine—was what followed: We built new norms around newly abundant and contemporary literature. Novels, newspapers, scientific journals, the separation of fiction and non-fiction, all of these innovations were created during the collapse of the scribal system, and all had the effect of increasing, rather than decreasing, the intellectual range and output of society. The response to distraction, then as now, was social structure. Reading is an unnatural act; we are no more evolved to read books than we are to use computers. Literate societies become literate by investing extraordinary resources, every year, training children to read. Now it's our turn to figure out what response we need to shape our use of digital tools.”

Carr would challenge Shirky that the expansion of reading brought about by print is a valid historical precedent for the internet: “It is revealing, and distressing, to compare the cognitive effects of the Internet with those of an earlier information technology, the printed book. Whereas the Internet scatters our attention, the book focuses it. Unlike the screen, the page promotes contemplativeness....What we seem to be sacrificing in all our surfing and searching is our capacity to engage in the quieter, attentive modes of thought that underpin contemplation, reflection and introspection.”

I see merits to both sides of this debate. While acknowledging that I'm at least partially dumbed-down and attention-challenged by the latest technology, I'm pretty confident that, for me at least, the internet is more plus than minus. Without the internet, for example, I'd be unable to do the research that drives this column. Of course, some might argue that's reason enough to doubt the web.

I'm interested in reader reaction to the internet smarter/dumber debate. The fact you're reading an article in Information Management probably predisposes you to a positive overall assessment of the internet, but I'd nonetheless like to get your response and reasoning to the following question:

On the whole, do you think the internet has made you smarter or dumber?

  1. Without a doubt – smarter
  2. More smart than dumb
  3. It's a wash
  4. More dumb than smart
  5. Without a doubt – dumber

Steve also blogs at Miller.OpenBI.com.

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